Believe it or not, our Bolivia adventure began while still in Chile. We were sitting inside the World White Travel Agency (that really is the name) inquiring about pricing and departure dates for a 4 day round trip tour to the salt flats, the surrounding national reserves and Uyuni. As usual, we had done zero research and were quickly informed that with a US passport the visa fee to enter Bolivia was $160 USD per person. That added up to almost more than double the tour price and was ridiculous for only 4 days. We were about to back out when the other woman in the small office said let me call someone. About 30 seconds later, she said in Spanish, “No problem, you’ll pay $65 each”. Eric looked at her in disbelief. First off, who did she just call, and more importantly, who bargains with a country. She was visibly annoyed that we doubted this new info and she explained it was her husband who said it will be fine and that $65 would be our fee. Still absolutely skeptical, we signed up to leave the next day and left with the plan to have $140 USD in our packs.
We were picked up at our hostel in the morning and had just enough time to grab croissants, all the while stink eyeing the cooks for the 4 AM tunes. Within about 15 minutes we were on our way with our new group of 12 travelers to the Chilean border. We cleared out of Chile with no problems and had about a 40 minute drive in between country limbo and the border of Bolivia. When we reached the border we were a little nervous due to this deal we had made with someone on the other line. Our bus driver came up to us and said that we needed to come with him specifically once our immigration cards were completed. We walked up to the building, cut in front of the long line and he brought us up to the desk and said “two” to the official. The Official looked at him and said no and then the guy said yes, $120 dollars. The official came back and said $140 and we said ok. He then stamped our immigration cards and said no passport stamp and took our money. We are 100% sure that he had just made $140, or at least most of that minus the bus driver’s cut. Either way, we never got a stamp but were rushed outside and told to go grab our backpacks and pick a Toyota Land Cruiser to get in. It was total coincidence that out of our twelve, six people were first language Spanish speakers and six of us were first language English. We separated by language into our vehicles, Eric and Marie (US), Chris and Charlotte (Canada), and Tom and Georgia (England) and started the four day journey.
Besides bribes, the first impressions of Bolivia were intense, freezing wind and barren landscapes. Our guide was Nefi and he turned out to speak great English. He was kind and caring and seemed to enjoy explaining about everything we were seeing. We stopped to take photos at a few lakes in the region right outside of the border, Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca. We drove on towards the second stop which was a natural hot springs. It was pretty hard to undress and put on a swimsuit with the wind blowing nonstop, but the water and the view was worth it. We then went to a geyser complete with steam and boiling mud holes. Eric and I had both never seen a geyser before so that was really interesting. The next and last stop on the first day was at Laguna Colorado, which is known for the red algae present in the water, making the whole lake appear red in certain lights. There are also a lot of flamingos in the area. We were all scared of the first evening’s accommodations as the tour company said they were ‘very basic’ but it turned out to be great. We spent the night talking about how we had all made it there. The other two couples had come from the south and us from the north, so we exchanged advice for going either direction. We slept better than expected that first night and were prepped for day two when the sun came up.
The second day was amazing because of the vast and desolate landscapes. It truly was so remote and barren with small mosses or desert creatures but not much else at all. The area is also littered with volcanos and volcanic rock that has been worn down by the relentless wind. The formations and the colors were beautiful. We saw a handful of more lakes and many more flamingos, as well as at least one active volcano. When we were almost to our next hostel we stopped at old mining railroad tracks. The next place we were staying was pretty unique. In theory it would be interesting but in practice, not so much. The Salt Hotel was just that, a hotel that had covered the interior walls of the main area, the hallways and the bedrooms in either bricks of salt or actual salt, such as on the floor. While it created a weird glow lighting and a new experience, when you touched or put anything down and it was immediately covered in salt, i.e., any wet body part or backpack, not so fun. There was a child of one of the women who cooked for the travelers at the hostel. He was notorious for stealing tea cookies and poking his hands under your buns on the benches in the dining area. Overall the talked up salt covered hotel shouldn’t be the selling point for the tour agencies, maybe only just the hot shower.
On day three we visited the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. We had to drive about an hour to get to the edge of the flats. The views were really incredible and changed dramatically once you got to the area. We were almost expecting the ground to be a sandy type of salt layer but it was hard like a giant salt lick. The tour guides drive much faster and anywhere they please once they get to this zone. There is a large island in the salt flats, Isla Incahuasi, and while being a small extra charge, it was beautiful, with huge cacti and great views. The best part was spotting Erdem and Sarah and their pup Tara whom we had met back in Puno, Peru. We took a quick polaroid, swapped stories and said we would have to meet again in Argentina. After that stop we went to take the mandatory perspective photos. We tried to crawl out of wine bottles, ride llamas, sail a boat, escape dinosaurs and squash people between our fingers. All the fun you wait for while visiting the salt flats!
From there we made our way to our final stop, the railroad graveyard outside of Uyuni. It was really cool to be able to walk around on all the old rusted cars and steel beams. From Uyuni we sadly had to say goodbye to the two other couples that were headed on to Sucre and La Paz.
We hopped in a different car with a different driver to get to our last stop. We were joined by two German guys travelling for a few weeks. We had great conversations in the car and shared the rest of our rum over soup that was actually water with an asparagus sprig and the world’s worst spaghetti. Our wakeup call was a rough 5 AM in the dark, freezing Bolivian morning. By the time we got to the border, we were all ready for a hot shower and to escape the cold. When we asked the same bus driver as before about paying our Bolivian exit fees and turning in our immigration cards, he just said don’t worry and took the cards. So now, we will forever have a stamp out of Chile and four days later a stamp back into Chile with just memories in between.
This was the first time besides our cave tour in Belize and scuba in Cozumel that Eric and I had done anything guided. And looking back it really was amazing for all the things that could have gone wrong. Our travel companions were awesome, decent food every day, a super friendly guide and a beautiful part of the country. We were disappointed we couldn’t take more time to drive through and experience more of Bolivia, but you always have to miss something. Now for the rest of Chile!